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The Church and social policy: When less is more

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 21, 2021

Here’s a novel thought for you: There is a big difference between “policy” and “virtue” and, choosing between these two, the Church’s business is virtue. A similar difference exists between “facts” and “truth” and, again choosing between the two, the business of the Church is truth. Now I know you would never think of this on your own. After all, if what I have just declared were really the case, why would so many ecclesiastical statements and initiatives over the past fifty years concern themselves with social, political, economic, environmental and managerial facts and policies? And so little with faith and morals?

A related question would be why the Church so often seems to discipline the members of her ruling class (the clergy) for policy violations rather than for resistance to truth and virtue. I grant you that human policies create bright and manageable little lines, the better to take definitive notice of when they are crossed. But it isn’t violations of human policies which rob souls of life; it is failures of faith and morals.

The institutional Church is the arbiter of truth; the laity of the common good

If we have benefited at all from the Second Vatican Council, we should have relearned that it is primarily the province of the laity to ensure that “the world may be permeated by the spirit of Christ and it may more effectively fulfill its purpose in justice, charity and peace”:

The laity have the principal role in the overall fulfillment of this duty. Therefore, by their competence in secular training and by their activity, elevated from within by the grace of Christ, let them vigorously contribute their effort, so that created goods may be perfected by human labor, technical skill and civic culture for the benefit of all men according to the design of the Creator and the light of His Word…. Moreover, let the laity also by their combined efforts remedy the customs and conditions of the world, if they are an inducement to sin, so that they all may be conformed to the norms of justice and may favor the practice of virtue rather than hinder it. [Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) 36]

Let me put this more simply: It is the clergy’s job to instruct the laity in faith and morals while nourishing them through the sacraments, that they may be incorporated ever more completely and vitally into the Body of Christ. But it is the laity’s job to discern the best practical ways in which to develop and promote the common good in the social order as a whole. Thus, in common parlance, it is the laity first and foremost who must discern the “factual” state of the world so that they might implement the most effective human “policies” to increase the common good in accordance with the truth about God and the human person which they have learned in Christ through the Church.

All Catholics, in other words, are accountable to the Church for their understanding of truth and goodness, faith and morals, both in the supernatural and the natural orders. Thus every member of the Church is subject to her authority when discerning both the legitimate ends of human government and the morality of the means governments use to achieve those ends. But no Catholic is accountable to the Church for an understanding of the best political, social, economic, and environmental mechanisms, procedures and policies (among all those not characterized by immoral ends or immoral means) to protect and enhance the common good.

In this area, the Church herself will always find that less is more. Insofar as she draws back from analysis and policy recommendations on complex social situations and confines herself to insisting that her members learn and adhere to the principles of faith and morals drawn from Divine Revelation and the Natural Law, she will more effectively equip the laity for their own proper task in the world. The laity, on the other hand, will find that more is less. Insofar as they attempt to expand their own role as arbiters of the principles of faith and morals, they will become far less capable of promoting the common good.

Discipline in Church and State

Discipline in Church and State are fundamentally different things. In the Church, discipline is spiritual, in the State material. When the Church disciplines, the purpose is to convert the sinner or, failing that, simply to exclude him or her from membership in the Church. Our Lord Himself set the standard for this discipline, as recounted in the famous teaching on fraternal correction (Mt 18:15-20), which concludes that those who refuse the correction of the Church are to be treated by the members of the Church as outcasts. He also insisted that whatever the apostles and their successors bind on earth “will be bound in heaven” (Mt 16:19).

Though not alone among Biblical authors, St. Paul offers the most advice on ecclesiastical discipline to the local churches he supervised, especially the fractious Corinthians. He insists that the unrepentant offender must be “removed from among you” (cf. 1 Cor 5:1-6) and asks, concerning the failure to expel Christians who persist in evil, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” Elsewhere in the same letter, he stresses that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (cf. 1 Cor 11:18-30). In writing to both the Thessalonians (2 Thes 3:14) and the young bishops Timothy (2 Tim 3:1-5) and Titus (3:10), Paul insists they must have nothing to do with those who disobey the dictates of the Faith.

Peter and John take exactly the same approach, following the same Master. Thus Peter:

Therefore gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” [1 Pet 1:13-16]

It is John who records Our Lord’s statement, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15), and in his third letter, he promises he will deal personally with one who is leading the community astray in one of the churches he founded:

I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge my authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, prating against me with evil words. And not content with that, he refuses himself to welcome the brethren, and also stops those who want to welcome them and puts them out of the church. [3 Jn 1:9-10]

This is exactly what happens in wayward dioceses and parishes which cater to the spirit of the age and refuse to accept apostolic authority. Church governance is fundamentally ordered to the discipline of the Faith, sacramental discipline, and moral discipline. Or, if you prefer, you can substitute the word “discipleship” for “discipline”.

But note that the Church does not discipline the State as a whole. She strengthens herself and her own supernatural commitments by exercising her rightful discipline in the matters over which she has been given Divine competence. But her members, whom she does (or is supposed to) discipline with respect to faith and morals, are part of the civil order, and must do their best to orient it toward the true and the good.

It is only when the Church operates in this way that she can both preserve the integrity of her own salvific mission and, through the power of her consistent witness, leaven whole nations to reflect her own truth and goodness in their own laws and policies.

Toward the common good

Note that Catholic principles do not impose a particular political order. The Church distinguishes what is true from what is false regarding what God has revealed, and what is moral from what is immoral, but she does not insist that the State exclude obdurate sinners from the commonwealth in the same way she is supposed to exclude them from her own communion. Rather, what she is supposed to do is to maintain her own integrity as the Body of Christ for the salvation of souls.

Meanwhile, what the State is supposed to do is promote the common good in this world. Exactly what sins are also to be regarded as crimes, and what crimes are to be punished in the civil order, and by what penalties, is a matter of temporal prudence. The same is true for the policies and provisions which guide political, social and economic life, including care of the environment. These things belong to the civil order to regulate, deciding upon the optimum punitive measures for various transgressions in the civil order, as well as the optimum incentives for helpful behavior, and prudently ordering temporal affairs to maximize the common good.

For example, the Church does not say to the State, “Abortion must be punished by the State through harsh legal penalties.” Rather, the Church says that abortion is a grave moral evil and so the State is categorically wrong to recognize abortion as a right or to deliberately facilitate abortion as any sort of proper end of government. The penalties for those involved in abortion may vary according to the capabilities of the State and the exigencies of the common good, but the State may not pretend that access to abortion is a good to be preserved and facilitated. We distinguish between the truth, as elucidated by the Church, and the most prudent way to incorporate that truth into the totality of the common good via law and policy, reward and punishment, which must be determined by the civil authorities, in accordance with what we might call the conditions on the ground.

The Church does not insist that every citizen profess Catholic doctrine, any more than she insists that people should be compelled to be members of the Catholic Church in the first place. The Church, unlike the State, is a voluntary society. In some overwhelmingly Catholic kingdoms in the past, heresy was considered as a kind of treason, because most people and the civil governments recognized how destabilizing it could be, but the Church was always the judge of what constituted heresy, and the State was always the entity that decided upon the worldly penalties, in accordance with its own assessment of the temporal dangers and, of course, the attitudes toward crime and punishment which vary from culture to culture and age to age.

Again, precisely because the Church is the arbiter of all that God reveals both through what we call Divine Revelation and through nature itself (and therefore of the natural law), it is well within her authority to define the proper ends of human government and to judge the moral permissibility of the means which governments use to achieve those ends. But it is not part of the Church’s guarantee of Divine authority to assess the complexity of temporal situations accurately and wisely or to determine the best strategies (and, yes, policies) for organizing civil life so that the common good is maximized. She can articulate what constitutes a true human right, based on her Divinely-inspired understanding of the nature of the human person, and she can also articulate what constitutes a violation of that right. But she has no rescript for figuring out the most prudent combination of circumstances and government actions in any given time and place to produce the best possible overall outcome of such a complex whole as “the common good”.

That is left to lay persons to work out practically as best they can, without falsifying those moral principles the Church has unerringly taught as true or implementing those principles the Church has unerringly taught as false, and without deliberately facilitating any acts the Church has unerringly taught to be evil or punishing any acts the Church has unerringly taught to be good.

When less is more

The point in all this is that no State can foster the common good unless that State is leavened by people who know the truth about God and a moral life, and the Church cannot even begin to create this leaven unless she forms her members to live consistent faithful and moral lives of authentic love. This is one of Christ’s final desires for His followers, as stated in His great priestly prayer to the Father in anticipation of his crucifixion:

I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth. As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth. [Jn 17:15-19]

Here is the whole mission of the Catholic Church, to ensure that this consecration takes place in as many souls as possible through her extension of the Presence of Jesus Christ in time. It is not a matter of recommending policies to the civil authorities or even of implementing a stream of ecclesiastical policies to keep the Church’s own house in order. It is a matter of Word and Sacrament, Faith and morals, life and love, and a voluntary growth in union with Christ through the Church in the midst of the world. And it is just here, paradoxically, that less really is more. Insofar as the Church bears courageous witness to the ultimate Realities, her people will become the leaven the world needs. Insofar as she bogs down in both internal policies and gamesmanship in the civil order, she degenerates into a lifeless bureaucracy.

Finally, as an additional pointer to a more fruitful course, let me quote again a passage I included in my last essay (The road to heaven is paved by a healthy Church). This must become something of a mantra for the renewal of the Church. For St. Paul insists:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.” [1 Cor 5:9-13]

Let the Church, then, look to herself and her own mission. Let the Church not be anxious about human policy, saying “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” These are the concerns of the Gentiles, not the children of God. In fact, at the end of the sixth chapter of his gospel, Matthew quotes Christ as making this point with absolute clarity: Let His disciples rather seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be theirs as well (Mt.6:25-34).

Less really is more in the life of the Church. This is and must always be the Church’s first priority and her first rule. For Jesus Christ has said it clearly: The rest will take care of itself.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jmbarry114 - May. 27, 2021 12:32 PM ET USA

    It is such a blessing to have well-researched, reliably Catholic information available at any time. Thank you for always giving of time, talent and treasure for the benefit of Catholics wanting to make good decisions and to give example to others. Each member of the Catholic Culture staff is in my daily prayers.

  • Posted by: grateful1 - May. 21, 2021 6:47 PM ET USA

    Superb piece, Jeff -- and your abortion example is especially illuminating on how differing spheres of competence/authority should be respected when it comes to matters of political, economic, and social policy. Wish this were required reading by every Catholic prelate.